Dec 03, 2011 By Harriet Petty ,

Whether you’re a cooking aficionado or a half-baked expert of beans on toast, it’s more than likely that you’ve attempted Chinese style cooking at some point in your life. For some, cooking in a Chinese style might mean throwing a bag of ‘Chinese vegetables’ in a wok, with lashings of soy sauce, and some ready-made Hoisin or black bean concoction. The more adventurous may have thrown in a bit of chilli, garlic and fresh ginger. I can personally attest that I considered myself a stir-fry expert in my student days, but now I’m looking to China for a more authentic eating experience. While those simple stir-fry dishes form the bread and butter of daily Chinese cuisine for many, there are a host of ingredients and recipes that get lost somewhere between China and the West just waiting to be explored. What follows are a few tips and ingredients that will help you to get creative in the kitchen for a more authentic Chinese feast.

Ingredients and Tips for Do-It-Yourself Chinese Cuisine

1) Use Fresh Ingredients
Fresh fruit and vegetables, spices, meat and fish are cheap and readily available in the sprawling markets, local shops and supermarkets. I use the term ‘fresh’ to encompass the many dried spices, mushrooms and seaweeds stacked high in most markets. Often you can quite literally buy fresh produce off the back of a lorry on a nearby street corner, so there really is no excuse for not sourcing and using fresh ingredients in your cooking. Fresh herbs in particular are a must. A fistful of torn leaves of Chinese parsley and coriander are invaluable when added to a bowl of beef noodles (Niu Rou Mian).

2) Experiment with New and Unknown Foods
While you might find the bobbing fish in overflowing tanks in the supermarket slightly comical, or the rampant use of meat ripped from every part of every animal bewildering, or the abundance of unfamiliar vegetables and dried goods astounding, I encourage you to embrace these new foods in your experimentations in the kitchen. If you’re not ready for those duck tongues, pig’s trotters or vacuum-packed chicken feet, maybe start by throwing some thinly sliced calabash gourd in your fried noodle or rice dishes. Garnish dishes with chrysanthemum petals for a sweet, fragrant undertone, or stir small pieces or Oriental radish through a rice dish, for an extra kick. For a real taste-bud treat, throw in some of those exotic dried black mushrooms that are so expensive in the West to make delicious Chinese soups and stir-fries. Or finely chop them with minced meat or green vegetables for a delicious dumpling filling. Not only are those mushrooms rich in flavour, they are frequently used in Chinese medicine to help reduce high blood pressure.

3) Learn to Make a Good Stock
A good stock is the basis of many Chinese dishes. It is an absolute necessity for soups of all varieties, and will accentuate the other flavours in your cooking or braising sauces. Master this art and your food will become infinitely more delicious and varied. The Chinese method of cooking relies on the chef’s ability to add ingredients in pinches and handfuls, rather than the more Western method of measuring and weighing exact amounts. This manner of cooking is particularly suited to making stock, where ingredients can be added and combined in infinite variations to suit any Chinese dish.

Clear stock is slow-cooked on a very low heat, gently simmering, while white stock is generally boiled throughout the cooking process on a medium heat, resulting in an opaque, creamy liquid. Most Chinese stocks have common ingredients of ginger, scallion and Shaoxing cooking wine in various quantities. For the carnivores out there, any fresh uncooked meat bones can be used, the trick is to match the flavours of the stock to the dish you want to prepare. A mixture of richly flavoured meats works well for Winter Melon Soup (Donggua Tang), while a chicken bone stock is more suitable for delicately flavoured dishes and seafood.

To increase the flavour of the stock, you can add small squares of diced meat to a clear stock, late in the cooking process to make Shangtang. A vegetarian stock combines a selection of fresh and dried mushrooms, soy sauce and root vegetables such as radishes or carrots.

4) Key Condiments
The vast range of Chinese dishes today comes from years of experimenting with different combinations of condiments and spices. Every mother, grandmother and chef has their own carefully guarded secrets on the exact ingredients, quantities and timings for any one dish. Some commonly added condiments and their uses are listed below.

    • Black Rice Vinegar (Chinkiang Cu) - Used frequently with sugars and aromatic spices such as cinnamon, star anise and ginger to braise meat for a stir-fry, it is also found in almost all restaurants and cafes in China, masquerading as soy sauce. This smoky, sweet vinegar is used as a dipping sauce for dumplings (Jiaozi) and spring rolls (Chunjuan).
    • Fermented Rice Wine (Huangjiu) - A quietly intoxicating sweet wine commonly used in Chinese cuisine for a particularly rich flavour, it readily soaks in other flavours during and after cooking. Shaoxing wine, a particularly famous type of Huangjiu is commonly used for Hong Shao Rou (Chairman Mao’s favourite dish). Also used in dishes named “drunken pork”, “drunken tofu”, “drunken meat product of choice” which should demonstrate the potential effect on sobriety if used in large quantities.
    • Scallions - These are various types of tasty plant stems from the onion family such as spring onions, shallots and garlic stems. They can be roughly chopped as a garnish, mixed in with minced pork to fill dumplings, or combined with thick pancake batter to make Chinese scallion pancakes (Cong You Bing).
    • Herbs, Petals and Tree Bark - Pungent Osmanthus bark (used in Hong Shao Rou), Chrysanthemum flower petals (used in lightly fragrant stocks and in Chinese egg flower soup – Dan Hua Tang), and Tiger lily buds (combined with pork, egg and mushrooms in a rich Huangjiu sauce to make Muxu Rou). These ingredients are subtle flavours that are usually hard to source in the West, and are therefore well worth experimenting with while in China.

Related links
How to Make the Most of Your Chinese Kitchen
Virtual Bite: Best Chinese Food Blogs
Guide to Street Food in China

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Keywords: tips for cooking Chinese dishes common ingredients in Chinese cooking how to cook Chinese Chinese cooking advice

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